By: Clint Calhoun
2016 will go down in history as the “Year of the Fires,” as Hickory Nut Gorge, along with many other places in North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee, suffered some of the worst wildfires in the region’s modern history. We can’t thank our firefighting crews enough for the great work they did to protect structures and lives of our collective Gorge communities. Their successful efforts will make recovery a much easier process.
Rarely do we as humans ever regard fire as being beneficial, particularly when we see the impact to humans in terms of loss of homes, possessions, and in many cases, loss of life. So many of us remember the old Smoky the Bear commercials that said, “Only you can prevent forest fires!” Unfortunately, that mentality is what has led to the suppression of fires in our forests, creating greater possibilities for catastrophe.
It is important not to diminish the huge impact that the “Party Rock Fire” had on our community, both socially and economically, but it is equally important to understand that fire, under the right circumstances, is an important component in managing our forests. Even though almost 7,200 acres burned, the burned area got something that it has needed for close to 100 years.
Now that the fire is out, it’s important to note that from a distance, things still look pretty much the same as they did before the fire. The forest is still tree covered, with most trees having dropped their leaves as autumn comes to a close. Even as the fire raged along the ground, the larger canopy-dominating trees were generally unaffected, mostly due to their height and their thick outer bark which offers protection from fire. All the photos that were posted on social media of the glowing mountain at night, while spectacular, paint a picture of utter destruction. The reality is far different that what those images depict. The overall view of the forest is that things remain mostly unchanged. Now it is possible to see that some areas got pretty hot, but in general, there was little impact to the trees that make up the forest canopy. Our forests are very resilient and by design are adapted to deal with natural events. In the spring, the trees will leaf out and be green just like any other year.
Meanwhile, on the ground lots of things changed. Fire consumed huge amounts of leaf litter and woody debris, and fire intolerant species, blackening the ground with ash. This process recycles carbon much more quickly than the decay process, freeing it up for other organisms to use. While the forest floor may be blackened, space has been created for re-growth and regeneration. Think of it as a giant reset button. Many of the species that will now come populate the forest are fire tolerant species that will improve the overall ecological health of the forest, increasing species diversity. One drawback is that there will also be a large surge of exotic invasive plant species that will likely require significant resources to manage, but that’s an article for another day.
Already many of the signs of fire are hidden as falling leaves cover the blackened ground. The newly fallen leaves will provide necessary ground cover to protect the exposed soil and serve as an insulating barrier to allow the carbon and ash to become part of the soil. Come spring, thanks to the increased nutrient input, wildflowers should abound, particularly where the soil didn’t get too hot. Some places may take a little longer to recover, but overall my opinion is that spring wildflowers in the area of the fire will be awesome.
One of the greatest concerns that I have heard from folks, in terms of impact to the forest, has been the welfare of various wildlife species that lived within the fire zone. Again, wildlife have survival instincts that allow them to adjust and adapt. Larger animals simply move out of the way, usually moving back into the burned area shortly after the fire has passed to take advantage of the newly exposed mast that may have been covered by leaf fall. Deer will often feed on young, tender shoots of grass and other plants that quickly regenerate after fire has passed. Animals such as bear and coyotes will often move ahead of the fire and catch smaller prey animals escaping the fire such as rabbits, squirrels, mice, and other rodents. Raptors such as hawks and owls behave in a similar way, using the smoke to hide as they stalk their prey with their keen eyes. Reptiles and amphibians will often hide in deep cracks in rocks or deep holes in the ground where they can escape the heat of the fire. Sure, some species’ individuals succumb to the smoke, but like humans, it mostly impacts the weaker individuals. This is nature’s way of ensuring that the strongest and most adaptable species survive. Not to mention fire does not kill entire populations, but rather only weaker individuals. Insect populations thrive after fire and many animals that rely on insects for food benefit from the increased numbers. The natural process is so deeply rooted in the genetic makeup of living things, that the detriment comes when we interrupt it rather than let it happen.
It’s hard for us to understand the natural world because humans don’t live in that world anymore and our view of it has been so skewed by watching too many Disney and Hollywood movies that have promoted a romantic view of nature. Nature can be very cruel and takes no prisoners, but in death there is life. Even as we see what appears to be destruction, the process makes way for healing, regeneration, and re-growth. The removal of undergrowth and competitive, successional species helps the forest to function at its greatest level of efficiency. Based on what I’ve seen and what I know to be true about fire, our forests will strongly benefit from what has happened, even though we don’t want to see such a disaster of this magnitude ever again.
If you want to learn more in-depth information about fire ecology and what things will look like after the fire, I invite you to check out my blog (shameless plug, I know), if you haven’t already, at http://clintcalhounadventures.blogspot.com, where I go into quite a bit more detail about the Party Rock Fire and what to expect. I’ve also posted some pictures there so you can see what I’m talking about. There are also some great online resources that discuss fire ecology and the benefits fire provides for our forests. I hope this provides some reassurance to those who are worried about what our mountains are going to look like in the aftermath. I also encourage everyone to thank our firefighters for doing such a great job to protect the homes, businesses, and most importantly the lives of the people of our Gorge communities. Until next time!
Clint Calhoun is a naturalist and biologist and has worked in Hickory Nut Gorge for over 20 years. He is currently the Environmental Management Officer for the Town of Lake Lure.